On April 28th at 5:30 in the evening, students, professors, and other adults gathered on the East Gammage lawn to talk about sex. Participants sat on air mattresses, as a half-nod to Emma Sulkowicz’s now-infamous mattress-lugging durational performance piece on Columbia’s campus, but more heavily as a metaphor for the intimacy and relative innocence of student life and sexual exploration. While the air mattresses were initially chosen for their portability, they also evoked lighter settings—middle school sleepovers, summer camp, weekend visits with an out-of-town friend. They suggest the sweet gesture of walking into a friend’s house to see they’ve already set up a temporary bed for you, as well as a kind of special impermanence; because these moments or days are out of the ordinary, they must be appreciated; we must pay attention to them.
The mattresses began in three circles that accommodated roughly 20 people each, and these circles hosted separate conversations each led by an artist from Gregory Sale’s “Art and Community” class. All three leaders had a stack of 19 colorful cards that held questions collectively written, edited, and culled by the class, and encouraged the reader (and listeners) to open up about topics centering around sexual wellness. “What does a healthy relationship look like to you?” read one. “What was your sexual education like?” read another. Some became more personal, in an attempt to break down barriers between group members and allow conversation to freely flow; “Will you tell me about your first kiss?” “What’s one piece of sex-related advice you would give to your 15-year-old self?” Though conversations in most circles started out slowly and cautiously, the groups gradually began to open up and share stories with an equal mix of laughter and seriousness.
After roughly 30 minutes of these conversations, the circles combined to form a large circle for a collective group discussion and expressions of thanks, which artist Samantha Cook closed with an activity centered around consent; “Find someone you don’t know and ask if you can hug them,” she instructed. “And then they can answer yes or no.” After a beat of uncertainty, the participants rose, crisscrossing the circle to hug a stranger with warmth and respect.